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An Unexpected Ending For An Inspiring Champion

by Bob Funkhouser

The greater the expectations, the greater the disappointments. There was a point in the career of CH Boucheron that the disappointments outweighed the successes, but when looking back on the career of the 2004 Five-Gaited World’s Grand Champion who died unexpectedly, Saturday, April 1, two weeks shy of his 13th birthday, it was a life filled with championship moments.

It was a life full of stories, twists and turns, beginning with his birth. In 1992, Stonecroft Farm owners Don Spear and John Scheidt had an arrangement with Linda Johnson of Foxfire Stud to trade for their broodmare of choice for the year. Spear selected Whata Jewel Whata Jewel from Johnson, while she took Amazing Grace DSG, the dam of Revival. There was some disagreement as to who Whata Jewel Whata Jewel would be bred to, but Spear made the final decision and she was sent to the court of Shamrock Santana.

“Shamrock was absolutely beautiful and that’s what that mare needed,” said Spear in an earlier interview.

George Hayden was standing Shamrock Santana and gave Spear and Scheidt a stud fee for part interest in the resulting foal. As the story goes, Scheidt and Spear had a pair of chairs that Hayden wanted and he traded his interest in Boucheron back to them for the chairs.

Boucheron was sent to Jim Koller as a two-year-old and in May of his three-year-old year Rob Byers came to see him. Byers was looking for a gaited horse for Sally Groub Gayeski and Koller had told him he “just might have another Face Card.”

“He [Boucheron] hadn’t shown yet, but he was close to being ready,” said Byers. “Koller had him doing all his gaits. I took him to Harrodsburg in July and won the UPHA Classic.”

On to Louisville and Boucheron and Byers captured the ASHA National Three-Year-Old Five-Gaited Futurity World’s Championship. They would close out the year winning another UPHA Classic at the Kentucky Fall Classic and then the UPHA Three-Year-Old Five-Gaited Classic Grand Championship at Kansas City.

The next year there would be junior stakes at Asheville and Rock Creek before leaving Freedom Hall the end of August as one of the most exciting performers of the week. Offers from several big players were made for the newly crowned Junior Five-Gaited World’s Grand Champion and Junior Five-Gaited Stallion/Gelding World’s Champion but the Groub family did not sell.

“I thought he had the potential to be a great one,” said Byers in an interview for Boucheron’s dedication in the 2004 Year In Review book. “We were hoping Sally [Gayeski] could ride him and that he would replace Face Card. Mr. Groub loved this horse also. It was the only one he was attached to. When we had all that interest in him, they said, ‘No, just stay with the plan’.”

Boucheron and Byers made their debut into the open ranks that fall at the American Royal. The bold four-year-old won the gelding stake and then came back to win the Five-Gaited Grand Championship, defeating the current Five-Gaited World’s Grand Champion Zovoorbij Commander In Chief, CH Williwaw, JB Touch N Go, SS Genuine and Callaway’s Hot Tip.

There were great expectations that Boucheron would be the next great one. He did come back to win the Five-Gaited Gelding World’s Championships as a five and six-year-old, but according to Byers it was on pins and needles. In 2000, he couldn’t hold it together inside of Freedom Hall.

“I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure him out. He was the oddest duck I’ve ever been around,” said Byers. “He wasn’t a bad horse and he never tried to hurt me. Actually he was very friendly and kind. He loved people.

“I felt sorry for him. Something inside him just made him freak. I wanted to crawl inside his head and see what was going on. I would look at him and say, ‘Please give a sign, anything’.”

The road did get bumpy in 2000, however, they came back in 2001 to put a nice string of shows together. There were wins at Kentucky Spring Premier, Rock Creek, Lawrenceburg, Harrodsburg, Shelbyville, and the Kentucky County Fair Five-Gaited Grand Championship at the World’s Championship Horse Show.

For 2002, Byers tried showing Boucheron in harness to get his body straight. That experiment didn’t get the desired results so it was back under saddle for the gelding and his never-give-up-the-ship trainer.

It was another summer classic at the 2004 Lexington Junior League. A competitive stallion/gelding class finished with Walterway’s Remember Me in first, followed by Lucrative, Wing Admiral, Boucheron, New York Showtime, Your Eminence, Sharp Believer and Molligny Don’t Worry Be Happy. There was something a little different about this class. Boucheron had several passes resembling his earlier years. He didn’t blow up, but he was on the edge. It caught some people’s attention, in fact one of the three judges, Bret Day, tied him first.

Saturday night started off like the qualifier and then instead of getting tighter and going sideways, the athletic gelding shot down the straightaways like he owned then. Slowly he was making believers out of the crowd, which was now on its feet. You could see the look in Byers face: “Please finish these last few passes.” By the time they lined up, the stake night crowd was screaming over the performance they had just witnessed. It was one of the great feel good moments of the industry for a professional in some time. Every single person that was sitting or standing railside rode every step of the way with Byers. There was an overwhelming sea of people back at the Premier Stables tack room congratulating all those involved.

“He is as tough a horse as I’ve ever worked. Not bad or evil, just tough,” said Byers following that championship ride. “I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before. It really makes you feel good to know that many people out there are happy for your success. This business is so competitive and then for something like this to happen.”

A month later the Louisville audience collectively held its breath in the gelding stake but Byers didn’t hold anything back. He wasn’t about to wait until Saturday night to see if Boucheron could take the pressure again. The Shamrock Santana son responded with one of the most athletic performances by an open gaited horse since the days of CH Sky Watch and Man On The Town. Saturday night was no different. Boucheron and Byers convincingly conquered the world and wore the red roses for his greatest fan Nete Groub and her family. She’s the lady who never gave up on her horse or her trainer.

With a “don’t stop now” attitude the Boucheron team went on to Kansas City in November adding the Five-Gaited National Championship and a Triple Crown (Lexington, Louisville, Kansas City) title to their storied record. While Byers didn’t really hear the cheers for their victory passes that year because he was so in tune to his horse, he and wife Sarah did fully feel the effect of an emotional standing ovation when Boucheron was named the UPHA Five-Gaited Horse Of The Year at the National Convention in Hilton Head Island. The Saddle Horse community had embraced the gelding and his ability to overcome the adversity that tried to tarnish his career.

In 2005, there was a win at Indy Charity but again disappointment at Louisville. Boucheron stumbled coming through the gate into Freedom Hall and never recovered. Byers kept him in the barn for Saturday night.

Boucheron had been turned out this past winter and was just getting back to work when he met his tragic fate. When the staff at Premier Stables went in to feed on Saturday morning they found Boucheron down, unable to get up. Dr. Scott Bennett was called and when he got there they rolled him over and supported his back end with hay bales.

“He put his front legs out like a horse getting ready to get up. It was a helpless feeling being there with him. I just thought he was going to get up and that would be it. This was a sign that he was done. I was going to turn him back out and he would never have to see a barn again.”

Boucheron did not get up, however. Byers felt it was a blessing that he got to spend a few hours with him before he passed away. He and Dr. Bennett had both put many hours in on the gelding and it was devastating on both of them to see him go this way.

At the time of this story the only thing that had been found was that he had a cervical fracture. “The question is why,” said Byers. “Right now there is a lot of guess work. Something had to drop him.”

Losing a horse that you’ve spent day and night with for several years is always hard on trainers, but the relationship between these two made it even tougher. They had been to the top of the mountain together and they had fallen down together.

“The rides at Louisville are a given as far as some of my best memories but it is the time spent with him out in the field or in his stall that I'm going to miss the most,” said Byers. “He was a friend through all of this. He loved people.”

“This experience has been a blessing,” added Sarah Byers. “As competitive as this business is there were so many people that wanted to believe in him and were happy for his success. The cards and phone calls have been touching. For good reasons or bad reasons, he brought everybody together.”

CH Boucheron was cremated and they are looking into having his ashes buried at the Kentucky Horse Park along with other great equine stars including CH Sky Watch and CH Imperator.

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